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'Away From Her': Into Blankness, Beautifully

Fiona and her retired husband, Grant, have just returned from cross-country skiing when we meet them, and they're washing dishes. A simple thing: Grant hands his wife a frying pan, and Fiona puts it away — in the freezer. Fiona is sophisticated, articulate, elegant, and slipping away. It's Alzheimer's.

But she's still decisive, and after she gets lost one day near their home, she makes the decision her husband can't: She'll check into an institution. To his alarm, it requires that she not have visitors for her first 30 days. Grant delivers her, and somehow tears himself away, and a month later returns to find Fiona fitting in nicely. She's watching a man in a wheelchair playing cards; when Grant catches her eye, she smiles, and joins him on a couch for a chat, which feels warm and cozy — until something Fiona says makes it clear to Grant that his wife hasn't actually recognized him.

Away From Her, based on an Alice Munro short story called "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," is a generous, deceptively simple portrait, simply brought to life on screen. Gordon Pinsent's Grant is gruff and bearish, Julie Christie's Fiona gorgeous and exquisitely blank. Even in the actress's Doctor Zhivago days, there was something remote, something vaguely chilly about her beauty, and never has that chill been used as effectively as it is by first-time director Sarah Polley. As Fiona withdraws over months and months of visits, Christie's eyes tell you less and less, until the moment when Grant sees her in a garish sweater he knows she'd never wear. He realizes that she's gone — still there, but gone.

In concentrating on Christie's performance, I don't mean to slight the work of her costar, who's called on to convey as much with his eyes as she's withholding with hers — about a long-ago betrayal, and a looming sacrifice, and a love that seems to grow even as he feels himself slipping away.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.